A theatre announces that a classic male role will be played by a woman and gets a plethora of headlines as a result. While giving a woman a meaty, lead role is something to be applauded, it exposes the shortcomings in onstage equality in theatreland. Gender swapping characters isn’t fresh, new and exciting, it’s starting to feel overused, calculated and like lip-service.
Given the progress, Hollywood seems to be making on equality and diversity theatre land needs to up its game. In fact, recent research shows that films with a female lead have bigger box office takings than those with a male lead so there is also a business case.
Part of the problem is the reliance on regurgitating classic plays which tend to be male-dominated. Yes the landscape is changing but slowly – we still have too few female playwrights getting their work on stage, for example – but what we urgently need are more decent roles written for women.
They do exist – Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse is a great example – but it shouldn’t feel like a rare treat. In the meantime, gender-swapping classic roles is starting to feel overused to the point where feels like a cheap marketing ploy.